A flag that’s di­vid­ing more than unit­ing

Twenty years af­ter in­de­pen­dence, Kyr­gyzs­tan de­bat­ing new sym­bol

The Washington Times Daily - - World - BY TOLKUN NAMATBAEVA

IO­ther mean­ings

BISHKEK, KYR­GYZS­TAN t’s blood red with a yel­low sun­burst in the cen­ter that’s cov­ered by the top open­ing of a yurt — and it’s the fo­cus of fierce de­bate in this Cen­tral Asian na­tion. Kyr­gyzs­tan’s flag has flown for 20 years since the coun­try’s in­de­pen­dence from the for­mer Soviet Union — a tan­gi­ble rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the peo­ple’s his­tory, her­itage and pride, full of sym­bol­ism and mean­ing. There’s the rub. “State sym­bols are sa­cred for us, pro­tected by law, and never should be the ob­ject of ar­gu­ment and dis­cord,” says Ab­dyrah­man Ma­matal­iev, who heads a com­mis­sion that is ex­am­in­ing the is­sue of chang­ing the flag.

“But now there are a lot of dis­putes. Part of the pop­u­la­tion doesn’t . . . ac­cept the flag. We need a flag that the whole na­tion can unite un­der, a flag we can be proud of.”

Part of the de­bate cen­ters on what the flag’s sym­bols mean.

The crossed lines over the yel­low sun­burst rep­re­sent the view through a tun­duk, the chim­ney­like open­ing in the tra­di­tional tent known as a yurt.

The flam­ing yel­low sun and red back­ground are sym­bols of Manas, an an­cient war­rior hero of Kyr­gyz leg­end who fought off for­eign in­vaders and then con­quered neigh­bor­ing tribes.

Home, light and the blood of the peo­ple — sym­bols for these ideals can be seen in many flags, not just Kyr­gyzs­tan’s. But some Kyr­gyz cit­i­zens see more in the sym­bols than oth­ers.

For play­wright Mar Bay­giev, sym­bols re­lat­ing to Manas are in­ap­pro­pri­ate for mod­ern Kyr­gyzs­tan — a na­tion of 5.5 mil­lion peo­ple that in­cludes Uzbeks, Uighurs, Don­gans and other eth­nic groups con­quered by the epic hero.

“Why is it not blue sky but blood that is seen through the tun­duk?” says Mr. Bay­giev, a mem­ber of the flag-chang­ing com­mis­sion. “It is said that Manas had a red flag, but that was his per­sonal bat­tle flag for wartime, not a na­tional one.”

He also is no fan of the pres­i­den­tial em­blem, which de­picts a moun­tain range on the back of an ea­gle. “And the bird on the in­signia looks more like a chicken than an ea­gle,” he says.

Some crit­ics say the flag’s red field rep­re­sents com­mu­nism and the yel­low looks like a sun­flower, which is re­garded as a sym­bol of de­pen­dence be­cause the plant turns to­ward the sun as it moves across the sky — a vis­ual re­minder of Kyr­gyzs­tan’s his­tor­i­cal de­pen­dence on Rus­sia.

Oth­ers take is­sue with the flag’s crim­son back­ground and the tur­bu­lent, if not vi­o­lent, his­tory it rep­re­sents.

Since the flag was first un­furled in 1991 af­ter the coun­try shook off Soviet rule, Kyr­gyzs­tan has seen two pres­i­dents over­thrown in pop­u­lar up­ris­ings: Askar Akayev, who was de­posed in 2005’s Tulip Rev­o­lu­tion af­ter hav­ing led the coun­try since 1990, and his suc­ces­sor, Kur­man­bek Bakiyev, who was top­pled in 2010.

Shortly af­ter Mr. Bakiyev’s ouster, vi­o­lent clashes be­tween eth­nic Kyr­gyz and Uzbeks in the south­ern prov­ince of Osh left hun­dreds dead.

“The present red flag of the coun­try is as­so­ci­ated with the blood of many peo­ple,” says Kar­gan­bek Sa­makov, a par­lia­men­tary leader who sub­mit­ted a bill on chang­ing the flag last March. “The tun­duk is sur­rounded by rays of the sun, but they look like flames, as if the coun­try is em­braced by fire.”

Mr. Sa­makov even sug­gests the sym­bols may have con­trib­uted to un­rest in Kyr­gyzs­tan.

With a new, demo­crat­i­cally elected gov­ern­ment in place and hopes for a more sta­ble fu­ture, those cam­paign­ing for a new flag say it would help make a break with the past.

Stan­dard bear­ers

Nonethe­less, some see the coun­try’s check­ered his­tory as all the more rea­son to keep the cur­rent flag.

“Un­der this flag, our sports­men have been vic­to­ri­ous at in­ter­na­tional tour­na­ments,” says Re­nat Sa­mudi­nov, leader of po­lit­i­cal youth group Alash Ordo. “As for the two rev­o­lu­tions, young peo­ple have demon­strated and even lost their lives for this flag.”

Mr. Sa­mudi­nov says he is in­fu­ri­ated by the “su­per­sti­tion” of gov­ern­ment lead­ers who ap­par­ently are ob­sessed with sym­bols.

“It is com­pletely ab­surd,” he says. “The prob­lem is in the minds of these gov­er­nors. They don’t un­der­stand the mean­ing of gov­ern­ing a coun­try.”

The flag-chang­ing com­mis­sion con­sists of 15 par­lia­men­tary lead­ers from across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, as well as artists, sci­en­tists, writ­ers, de­sign­ers and his­to­ri­ans. They are aim­ing to cre­ate a list of five designs and make a final decision on al­ter­ing the flag this spring.

Bishkek businessman Ku­nay Mede­than has sub­mit­ted his own de­sign, a light-blue back­ground with a moun­tain range in white — sim­i­lar to the cur­rent pres­i­den­tial em­blem, mi­nus the ea­gle.

“Us­ing the moun­tains on a blue back­ground could bring new per­cep­tion of our coun­try and raise fresh in­ter­est from tourists and in­vestors,” Mr. Mede­than says.

Aside from dis­putes over the flag’s sym­bol­ism, some par­lia­men­tary lead­ers have es­ti­mated the cost of the project at about $5 mil­lion, which they say is an un­nec­es­sary ex­pense for a coun­try strug­gling to re­duce its bud­get deficit.

Mr. Ma­matal­iev puts the cost at closer to $70,000, say­ing that some of that amount would be off­set by rev­enue from sales of the new flag.

Yet for some Kyr­gyz cit­i­zens, the up­roar over the flag is dis­tract­ing from the coun­try’s more press­ing is­sues.

“There are coun­tries that are de­vel­op­ing fine de­spite hav­ing red flags,” says Nurlan Sazykov, a civil ser­vant in Bishkek. “They don’t have wars, rev­o­lu­tions or in­sta­bil­ity just be­cause of the color of their flag.”

Still he says there are valid ar­gu­ments for chang­ing the flag’s de­sign, as com­mu­nist ide­ol­ogy still dom­i­nates the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem.

“Per­son­ally, I think that in fu­ture the red flag could be changed, but not now when we have a lot of other prob­lems,” he says. “Let’s raise this is­sue in five years, when, as the pow­ers that be as­sure us, the coun­try will be more sta­ble.”


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